General John

Atlandia is a fictional country. It is ruled by an autocrat named General John. General John is a tyrant. He censors the media, controls the military, and ruthlessly persecutes even the faintest hint of dissidence.

From the outside looking in, Atlandia appears to be an oppressive, even brutal state. But as outsiders, here we are liable to make a blind, ungrounded judgment: we assume that the citizens of Atlandia despise General John. Surely, we reason, all Atlandians must absolutely loathe the guy – just look at how much power he exerts over them with his iron, military fist.

However, whether out of fear, complacency, or adoration of General John’s regime, the vast majority of Atlandians seem to simply, quietly, and obediently go about their daily lives. The vast majority of citizens do not appear to be thinking, strategizing, or even advocating for a revolution. Whether these citizens love or hate General John – and it’s very difficult for us to tell from the outside – it seems obvious that they respect the system.

One of Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) most perceptive insights into the human condition was an observation about the psychological sway of leadership: once people accept and “acknowledge” someone “as their lord”, they “bear a natural affection towards them.”1

If Machiavelli is correct here, then it is rash for us to uncritically assume that Atlandians automatically hate General John just because he is a tyrant. General John might represent a sense of social stability, national security, or even a shared ideological, religious, or political dogma. It is possible that the average citizen of Atlandia quietly accepts General John’s totalitarianism in exchange for the broader sense of stability that his rule guarantees. It is also possible that General John’s reign, as demeaning as it appears to us on the outside, is perceived on the inside as the best of all currently available options.

The point is this: it is dangerous for us to blindly assume that Atlandians hate General John. As primates, it appears that we can indeed develop a “natural affection”, respect, and fascination with the alpha-dominate members of our species, even while we cower in fear of them. This is why storming the gates of Atlandia as self-righteous ‘liberators of the oppressed’ so often backfires. As Machiavelli observed, “it is obviously not easy to assault a town which has been made into a bastion by a prince who is not hated by the people.”2

If General John is so despised by his nation, then why doesn’t the military orchestrate a coup d’état? Why don’t the people unite and revolt en masse? “They don’t stand up for themselves because they’re afraid of the consequences,” we explain. “They are immobilized by the terror of the tear gas, the executions, and the torture chambers!” Such fear is, of course, extremely legitimate.

But there is also another way for us to look at Atlandia. Consider all the individuals involved. Look at it from the perspective of the military officials, the puppet bureaucrats, the law enforcers, the foot soldiers, the industrial workers, and the small shop owners: from here Atlandia appears to be an interdependent web of individuals behaving in such a way as to best secure their own wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. In this respect, then, Atlandia is made up of people who actually share varying degrees of vested interest in the status quo. The system determines the parameters for roles and defines proper behaviour within them. Perhaps it is at this level of personal expectation and security that more Atlandians might indeed exhibit a so-called “natural affection” for General John than seems evident from a cursory, outsider’s glance.

The point is not that we should ignore violations of human rights in Atlandia, or internationally turn a blind eye to the gross injustices wrought upon innocent people by the hand of General John’s regime; it is simply that Atlandia is far more complex and nuanced than we are inclined to assume. Those of us who fancy ourselves as liberators are compelled to identify, target, and punish imprisoning devils… but the real world is far more finicky, and never as tidy as the justice-for-all narrative makes it seem.

The leadership lesson is instructive: wherever you find a hierarchy or a power structure, you find an intermingled array of personal agendas attached. Every edifice of power is only sustained by this elaborate, self-reinforcing balance of individuals conforming to their structural roles. Remember: there is much more going on in Atlandia than the mere presence of General John.

  1. Machiavelli, Niccolò. (2003[1532]). The Prince. (trans. George Bull; intro. Anthony Grafton) London: Penguin Books. (Book IV). 

  2. Ibid. Book X. 

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'General John' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on October 28, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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